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Editorial: Congress' inaction puts 2020 census at risk of undercounting in New York

The U.S. census, constitutionally required to be undertaken every 10 years, is at risk of conducting a poor count as Congress fails in its obligation to fund preparations and render the process modern and as efficient as possible. That’s a problem for New York and any state with high concentrations of minority residents.

The census is more than a numerical count. It influences federal funding levels and dictates the size of any state’s congressional delegation. New York is already at a disadvantage as issues including taxes, opportunity and even the weather drive businesses and jobs to other locations. It is critical that the state not be further harmed by a census that undercounts its population.

Accurately counting the number of people in any country is a challenging task. In a country of more than 300 million, it is fearsomely difficult and requires a level of planning and seriousness that matches its importance. With only three years to go before the 2020 census, that degree of seriousness is demonstrably lacking.

As part of the task of remaining current, the U.S. Census Bureau wants to change how people are counted, using online and phone surveys instead of just using the familiar mailed forms or employing workers to knock on doors. The bureau believes such a system would lower costs by $5 billion while producing a more accurate count. But the planning is inadequate.

“If Congress really wants the bureau to save those $5 billion in 2020, they need to spend the money now to get it right,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the Latin advocacy group, NALEO Education Fund. Hispanic residents are among those most likely to be undercounted in any census and, given their numbers in New York, uncounted to an extent that shortchanges those residents and the state for at least the ensuing decade.

Even with three years left, time is running out. The Census Bureau needs to be able to test new technologies and strategies before rolling them out for the actual head count. It has already canceled a few tests, including one in Puerto Rico to assess the ability to collect data only in Spanish. It conducted another test in Los Angeles last summer to determine the ability to collect data digitally in several Asian languages. A final, large-scale test is scheduled next year, but it depends on funding.

The census is part of the foundation of democratic government. Without an accurate count, the requirement of “one person, one vote” is impossible to achieve. Representation in statehouses and Congress would be disproportionate, giving some regions more or less influence than they are due.

Census planning and funding needs to be on a schedule. It is a sign of Congress’ lack of seriousness that three years before the next census, the entire enterprise is up in the air.
It can’t happen again. Congress should put the 2030 census on a time clock that begins ticking as soon as lessons can be gleaned from the 2020 count. It can begin calibrating that clock now.

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